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« Some observations on Japan | Main | Prepaid could be, should be, great »

They're not playing games

By Dave Birch posted May 4 2011 at 2:18 PM

It was obvious a few years ago that not only were virtual worlds going to be big business, but that they would have an impact on the payments market. I used put things like World of Warcraft into product and service roadmap discussions for our clients in the financial services space, and I'm sure that they thought I was doing it just for fun, just to get some discussion going. But having played around in the space, I could see it would lead to some new thinking. When you're sending World of Warcraft gold pieces to a friend in Asia via an elven intermediary (quicker and cheaper than banks, by the way) you can't help but wonder at the "real world" instruments to hand. This from three years ago...

Well it wouldn’t surprise anyone then, that most of our partners report they have a completion rate of 0.5-1% when they present a credit card payment page to their users for virtual goods...Mobile on the other hand... takes 15 seconds, and off goes the user to his virtual good or points that will enhance his game or app experience immediately without ever leaving the environment of the app.

[From Virtual Goods / Currency and Mobile Payments: the business model for Social Apps]

Note that figure: one in a hundred transactions complete. People playing at being virtual farmers want to buy some virtual cows, so they click to buy, but when they see a credit card payment screen, they can't be bothered. So there was a demand for a new kind of payment instrument that was not being met by the banks. Look how much things have changed since then, with the incredible boom in app store and in-game payments. There's no doubt that the retail payments roadmap is indeed being affected by the world of games.

Now I'm not implying that it's only payments will be impacted, because in the longer run it will be many kinds of financial service, including banking.

The publisher of the online science-fiction game "Entropia Universe," set on the planet Calypso, received a banking license from the Swedish Financial Supervisory Authority last week and plans to open a real bank within a year, albeit one without physical, walk-in branches.

Players of "Entropia" already exchange real money for a virtual currency that is used for their expenses on Calypso. And virtual money they make in the game, through hunting, mining, trading or other activities, can be cashed out into real money. The virtual currency, Project Entropia Dollars, has a fixed 10-to-1 exchange rate to the U.S. dollar.

By setting up a real-world bank, Sweden-based publisher MindArk PE AB gains the protection of the Swedish government's deposit insurance for these accounts, up to about $60,000 for each customer.

[From The Associated Press: Online game gets real-world banking license]

A healthy development! My younger son spends a lot of time online with his friends at the moment, hanging out not at the mall but at the WoW auction house (this is where he learns about economics, I'm happy to say). That's where our clients' next generation of customers are learning about money, payments and financial services. This from two years ago...

Today, Facebook application developers monetize their games and other applications by accepting payment directly using PayPal, Google, Amazon FPS, or SocialGold. Or developers may opt to receive direct payment via mobile phone via Zong, Boku, or another mobile payment provider... game developers in particular, often accept payment via a prepaid card sold in retail establishments, such as the Ultimate Game Card. The social and gaming web is exploding with virtual currency offerings, yet thus far no one model or payment brand dominates.

[From Purchasing Facebook Credits with Zong Mobile Payments — Payments Views from Glenbrook Partners]

Now, forward-looking organisations could see what was going on and began to target R&D appropriately.

Google is developing a micropayment platform that will be “available to both Google and non-Google properties within the next year,”... The system, an extension of Google Checkout, would be a new and unexpected option for the news industry as it considers how to charge for content online.

[From Google developing a micropayment platform and pitching newspapers: “‘Open’ need not mean free” » Nieman Journalism Lab]

The idea was then that micropayments would be a payment vehicle available to both Google and non-Google properties within the year. The idea was to allow viable payments of a penny to several dollars by aggregating purchases across merchants and over time. Google planned to mitigate the risk of non-payment by assigning credit limits based on past purchasing behavior and having credit card instruments on file for those with higher credit limits and using proprietary risk engines to track abuse or fraud. Merchant integration through Checkout would be extremely simple. Google, in fact, subsequently decided to purchase an in-game payments company rather than build it themselves.

Facebook and Google are poised to challenge the banking industry in online payments.

[From Facebook and Google Encroach on Banks Turf - US Banker Article]

Is this really true? I think the answer is yes and no, in the sense that I can't see any reason why Facebook or Google would want to be a bank, unless it's to get some sort of government handout, but I can see why they might want to get involved in payments in order to make money (not from the payments, where margins are thin, but from new products and services that have payments integral to them). This is why the news that Facebook had also begun experimenting with a payment system was hardly unexpected, but was notable nonetheless. There was an expectation that the existence of a secure and convenient micropayment scheme for Facebook users (of which there now more than 600 million) would stimulate the development of a new marketplace within Facebook's "barbed wire". This seemed plausible to me -- if it had been up to me, I would have added a spurious green element to the proposition somehow (getting merchants and other organisations to give out Facebook credits to reward environmentally desirable behaviour) -- and I was sure it would do well. I wondered in a number of forums as to who else might enter this more competitive currency market?

In the coming months, facebook users will be able to obtain facebook Credits using MOL points purchased through MOL's network of more than 500,000 outlets, which are mainly in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, India, Australia and New Zealand. In addition to outlets such as 7-Eleven stores and cybercafes, customers will be able to purchase Credits through MOL's network of online banks in these countries.

[From Finextra: Facebook moves virtual currency offline]

I gave a talk last year when I mentioned that I thought that Facebook credits would become the biggest virtual currency in the world fairly quickly. Unusually for my glib and sweeping predictions from the conference platform, this one appears to have come true, and even more quickly than I had imagined.

By the end of the year, Facebook expects that Credits will be used to buy the vast majority of virtual goods sold on Facebook. The fast-growing market is expected to reach $835 million on Facebook this year, according to the Inside Network... Through Credits, Facebook will take a 30 percent cut... To bolster that market, Facebook began selling Credits gift cards at Target stores across the country this month.

[From Facebook Promotes Its Credits as Path to Dollars - NYTimes.com]

Now this will one day become a standard business school case study. Talking of which, a few years ago, as part of a course I was teaching at Visa's Bank Card Business School, a colleague and I mocked up a future Visa card that drew on a World of Warcraft account rather than a fiat currency account. This was photoshopped up to make a point, and at the time it was supposed to be a totally out-of-the-box crazy picture of the future. About two weeks after we made it up, I read that a US bank was issuing a Visa card with cashback in World of Warcraft gold. Oh well. It did help to make one of the points that I was trying to get across, which is that the future of payments will extend beyond the "traditional" bank, consumer, merchant and acquirer for 4-party model.

Vegetable company Green Giant is offering an unlikely reward for purchasing their products: virtual currency in Zynga's hit social game FarmVille.

[From Wacky: Zynga Gives Away Free FarmVille Cash With Purchases Of Real Life Vegetables]

That was bad timing, coming just as Zynga (the people behind Farmville) caved in to Facebook and agreed to replace Farmville cash with Facebook credits, but it was an interesting development nonetheless, showing that virtual money is just as valuable as "real" money. Facebook's tactics show they undoubtedly have a strategy in this field.

First Facebook turned off notifications for applications, taking away the primary mechanism for social games to go viral. Now if a company wants a massive audience for a new game, they almost certainly have to buy it through Facebook advertising.

Now Facebook is rolling out Credits as the preferred method of payment for games on their Platform, and taking a 30 per cent cut of the transactions. That’s a much larger percentage than the social games companies were handing over to the small payment companies that had sprung up to fill this niche, and higher than the fees charged by PayPal and credit card companies.

[From Zynga says it’s not leaving Facebook | Tech Blog | FT.com]

Now there's something to be said for the creation of a single currency area as a way to encourage trade and therefore prosperity.

Besides leading the creation of a more people-centric web, it could also end up having the dominant virtual currency, according to an early adopter of Facebook Credits. PopCap Games has been using the service, which is still in the beta testing phase, as the sole payment method for Bejeweled Blitz on Facebook.

The game is free to play and attracts 11m monthly players, 3m of them playing it daily. PopCap sells extra power-ups, which boost players’ capabilities, and is moving onto sales of virtual items. It has decided to ignore offering other virtual currency options and only accepts Facebook Credits. Users can buy them with credit cards, Paypal or through their mobile phones in $5, $10 and $20 increments for 50, 100 or 200 Credits.

[From Facebook’s Credits Bank of the Web | Tech Blog | FT.com]

These are all useful case studies, showing how a new currency can develop and evolve.

Facebook has certainly tried to guide the development of its online economy, almost in the way that governments seek to influence economic activity in the real world, through fiscal and monetary policy. Earlier this year the firm said it wanted applications running on its platform to accept its virtual currency, known as Facebook Credits. It argued that this was in the interests of Facebook users, who would no longer have to use different online currencies for different applications.

[From Social networks and statehood | The future is another country | Economist.com]

I think I've seen the playbook before.

That means all Facebook game developers will be able to start using Credits as their payment system for virtual goods — in fact, Facebook is requiring them to make the switch by July

[From All Facebook Games Will Have To Use Facebook Credits Starting In July]

This comes from the Great Khan's playbook for monetary and fiscal policy. Not Genghis Khan. His fiscal policy was confused: when he took control of China in 1215, his pacification plan was to kill everyone in China, no small undertaking since China was then, as now, the world's most populous country. Fortunately, one of his advisors, a man who ought to be the patron saint of Finance Ministers everywhere, Yeliu Ch'uts'ai, pointed out (presumably via a primitive Treasury model of some sort) that dead peasants paid considerably less tax than live ones, and the plan was halted. In 1260, Genghis' grandson Kublai Khan became Emporer of China. He decided, much as Mark Zuckerberg has, that it was a burden to commerce and taxation to have all sorts of currencies in use, ranging from copper "cash" to iron bars, to pearls to salt to specie, so he decided to implement a paper currency.

Here's what Marco Polo had to say about it...

[From Digital Money: Lucky, for me anyway]

His monetary policy was refreshingly straightforward and more robust, even, than Mr. Zukerberg's: if you didn't accept his money, he would kill you. Naturally, in a short time, the new single currency was established and paper money began to circulate instead of gold, jewels, copper coins and metal bars. If you think talking about a new currency is crazy, take a look at Facebook Deals. According to Facebook, at launch, you will not be able to buy physical goods with Facebook Credits. Rather you will be able to get things like vouchers that you can redeem at events: now this is, frankly, a paper-thin distinction. I can't use Facebook Credits to pay for, say, a Coke at a pop concert but I can use them to pay for a voucher for a Coke at a pop concert. I am not an economist, but...

When beloved national retailers start offering goods and lower prices to customers who pay with a new, virtual currency - that's when said virtual currency becomes a force to reckon with. Somebody call Congress and the Federal Reserve - it's time to start having some serious conversations.

[From Facebook Deals Launches Tonight & Groupon Doesn't Stand a Chance (Updated)]

There's a warning from history here! Unfortunately, the Khan's paper money ended in disaster because the money supply was not managed: it collapsed in hyperinflation, because in the days after Yeliu Ch'uts'ai, the temptation to print money was just too great for the monetary authorities too resist. Let's hope that the Emperor of Facebook finds an advisor of the calibre of Yeliu Ch'uts'ai.

One possible future might be that, just as China turned in on itself and stagnated, leaving technological and commercial progress to other people, Facebook will become an inward-looking economy while others take up the torch! Perhaps competition in currency, not only in payment methods, is need to keep an economic space vital.

The new program, announced today at SXSW, is called RewardVille, which will give players zPoints and zCoins in CityVille, FrontierVille, FarmVille, Mafia Wars, Zynga Poker, Café World, Treasure Isle, YoVille, PetVille and Vampire Wars.

[From Zynga Rolls Out New Virtual Currency in Addition to Facebook Credits | Tricia Duryee | eMoney | AllThingsD]

Competition. This is the American way, not going complaining to Senator Durbin.

These opinions are my own (I think) and presented solely in my capacity as an interested member of the general public [posted with ecto]

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